July 20, 2011
In live television and stage production, intercom provides a vital behind-the-scenes connection without which most shows would quickly fall into disarray. While wired systems typically remain static once they’ve been programmed, connected, and wrung-out, wireless intercom is a more dynamic medium. Ensuring that unexpected interference doesn’t interrupt critical show communications requires not only careful advance planning but also ongoing attention and management. That’s why specialized professionals like James Stoffo, president of Pro Audio Access in Portland, Oregon, are so crucial to the telecasting of live events. As an RF consultant and frequency coordinator, Stoffo is hired to develop a detailed specification for the use of all RF devices at a given event, and to work with everyone involved to execute the plan successfully. The Telex RadioCom BTR-800 wireless intercom system has been part of every Stoffo RF plan since the product was introduced in 2001.
Stoffo has been working with radio for over thirty years, starting as a surveillance technician for the US Navy Submarine Service and working his way up to a leading role in wireless consulting for special-event television broadcasts. His credits include serving as Entertainment Wireless Engineer for 14 consecutive Super Bowls and as RF coordinator for music telecasts, such as the Latin Grammys and the Billboard Music Awards, as well as for sporting events such as the NBA All-Star and Final games and the Soccer World Cup.
As RF coordinator, Stoffo handles both frequency coordination — allocating a specific frequency to each wireless device — and RF systems design. The latter involves developing a detailed specification for the use of wireless at a given event, including intercoms, wireless microphones, and in-ear monitors. “I write the specification for the show, which lays out the type of coms, the type and placement of antennas, the type of RF filter, et cetera. The production company then goes to their RF vendor, who provides all of the equipment. My assistant and I then get everything working, and once we get into show mode she hands out the packs and monitors the base stations while I’m handling the wireless mics for the artists.”
At a large-scale show such as the recent Billboard Latin Music Awards in Miami, the sheer volume of wireless systems involved is more than enough to keep both Stoffo and his assistant busy. Stoffo was brought in for the 2011 event, his twelfth, by Telemundo Networks, part of NBC. “It is a standard three-hour music awards show,” Stoffo says, “with a couple of hosts on hand-helds, people coming up and accepting awards on a podium mic, and a lot of music performance. There were over 100 wireless frequencies in use, of which 55 were wireless intercom.”
The wireless intercoms were used in all aspects of production communications, including lighting, audio, stage managers, and cameras. “The audio department had the largest allocation of wireless coms on the show,” Stoffo says, “because they were setting up the stage for live bands, setting up microphones for the artists, and running out the in-ear monitors for the artists. Stage managers had the second-most. There are usually eight to 12 stage managers that all have to communicate to wrangle talent and to bring in sets and props, and they’re all on wireless. And the Steadicam operators running around with wireless video are also wearing wireless coms.”
Wireless equipment for the event was supplied by Professional Wireless Systems, a company founded by Stoffo but sold in 2001 to Masque Sound of East Rutherford, NJ. “All of the wireless intercoms PWS provided for the event were Telex,” Stoffo says. “We had 12 BTR-800s and about 48 beltpacks, mostly TR-825s and some TR-800s.”
Clear and robust
“I always specify the BTR-800s when I write a wireless spec,” Stoffo continues. “I’ve been using them ever since they came on the market, and over the years I’ve found that they are the most robust system. The RF performance is always cleaner, because the RF design is better. The audio quality is the clearest on the market right now, hands down. And it’s a more rugged system. So I have a lot more confidence in the BTR-800s than I do in any other wireless intercom. In my experience the BTR-800 system is absolutely the most likely to function in a useable way in any given RF environment.”
Beyond the general performance and reliability of the BTR-800 system, Stoffo credits RadioCom features such as intelligent power control and frequency agility with helping to make jobs like the Latin Music Awards easier to execute successfully. “Intelligent power control automatically reduces power output when the beltpack is close to the base station,” Stoffo explains. “The signal is still plenty powerful, but there’s less chance of creating interference on all the other radios in the vicinity.”
Frequency agility, meanwhile, helps cope with interference that can’t be fully overcome. “The biggest problem I have as a coordinator,” Stoffo says, “is people coming in with a quarter-watt news mic and stepping on top of everyone else because they are putting out so much power even though they’re only working ten feet away from their receiver. So when you get into a real-time show like the Latin Music Awards, it’s really essential that you have the ability to change frequencies on a unit very quickly. Once again the BTR-800 is the best on the market for that. It’s the quickest to change frequencies, so you can always have the cleanest signal.”
Another RadioCom feature Stoffo appreciates is wireless talk-around (broadcast ISO), which allows momentary private conversations between wireless beltpacks on the same channel. “Wireless talk-around reduces the chatter on the wired intercom line,” he says, “so it keeps the wired coms clean. You can have private beltpack-to-beltpack conversations and not clutter the wired channel.”
Overall, Stoffo says, “I think that the TR-800s are the most well-designed wireless beltpacks on the market. They’re easy to operate and not difficult to learn. I’ve handed out several thousands on the shows that I’ve done, and I’ve never had anyone get confused by the buttons or any of the displays.” Stoffo finds the base stations similarly user-friendly. “The BTR-800 interface is brilliant,” he says. “That front panel display is really easy to navigate.”
With the right gear and Stoffo’s expertise, the wireless systems at the Latin Music Awards performed without a hitch. “We were basically there for about a week,” Stoffo says, “We set up, got everything tuned up, and did our checks. Then we went into rehearsals for a couple of days, and then we did the show and the tear-down. There were absolutely no RF problems. Everything worked 100 percent.”